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White hat, black history

The Chisholm Kid colors the American West in new Gilcrease exhibit

From The Chisholm Kid color comic insert in The Pittsburgh Courier

Courtesy The Museum of Uncut Funk

During his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley, author and cultural critic James Baldwin offered a bruising observation about representation and the American western genre.

“It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians,” he said of watching white heroes in films like “High Noon” as a young black kid. “And although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

Baldwin’s critique can help visitors understand the value of the Gilcrease Museum’s latest exhibit, “The Chisholm Kid: Lone Fighter for Justice for All.” Curated by the Museum of UnCut Funk, it explores the legacy of the trailblazing Chisholm Kid comic strip—featuring a black cowboy as its eponymous hero—which ran during the early 1950s as a color insert in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s pre-eminent African American newspapers.

The exhibit, at Gilcrease from Dec. 14 through March 17 of 2019, will introduce Tulsa to the first black cowboy ever featured in a comic strip—an illuminating cultural artifact, nearly lost to time, revealing the American West as a more diverse place than its most iconic portrayals would suggest.

The show features 43 panels from UnCut Funk’s archives, the estate of the publisher, and the University of Michigan Special Collections Library. While objects from the collection have toured before, including a stint at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Gilcrease show represents the most complete collection in existence.

“The exhibition is literally what has survived,” said Mark Dolph, curator of history at the Gilcrease Museum.

The strip ran from 1950 through 1954, the year Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for integration in the United States. Ending a whole decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Chisholm Kid thrilled black audiences during a time when many were denied equal access to the basic institutions of American life.

Given this placement in history, what may seem a piece of pop culture marginalia is arguably one of the most paradigm-shifting milestones in the history of African American representation—a monumental discovery that started with a phone call.

From the attic to the gallery

Loreen Williamson, co-founder and co-curator of the Museum of UnCut Funk, launched the digital archive with her partner Pamela Thomas to preserve black pop culture ephemera from the 1970s. Aside from archiving blaxploitation film posters and interviews with funk icons like Isaac Hayes and James Brown, the online museum also boasts one of the world’s most extensive collections of original animation cels and drawings from Saturday morning cartoons featuring black characters like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

But their focus began to expand in 2014 after they received a call about an unusual collection. It was Alan Messmann, son of one of the publishers of the Pittsburgh Courier’s color insert.  “He said something like, ‘Hey—I’ve got these really interesting comics. I found them in the attic in a suitcase. Would you be interested?’”

Williamson and Thomas were, in fact, interested—but they didn’t know it would lead to such a major discovery in the history of black popular culture. “You get your hands on something you think is cool—and then you sit down to research and you’re, like, ‘Oh my god. I didn’t realize these were the first black heroes to ever appear in a comic strip!’”

The Chisholm Kid was one in a squad of black male heroes who appeared in the Courier’s color insert. He thrilled readers alongside characters like Guy Fortune, Mark Hunt, and Neil Knight—the comic world’s first black U.S. secret agent, private investigator, and space adventurer, respectively.

“These strips pre-dated civil rights,” Williamson said. “They pre-dated positive depictions of black people in media by 20-something years. So they’re significant because they’re the first within their own genre—the first positive black characters to appear in a comic strip—but they really pre-date our first positive black characters more broadly by two decades.”

Coloring the west

Depictions of the American West in popular culture are overwhelmingly white, but it’s estimated that nearly a quarter of cowboys who drove longhorns across Indian Territory on the Chisholm Trail were cowboys of color, according to Mark Dolph at the Gilcrease Museum.

Much like the non-white innovators written out of histories of American art, industry, and space exploration, these hidden figures—numbering somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 by some estimates—have been largely wiped from our collective memory.

“The cattle down in Texas had been managed in many cases by slaves,” Dolph said. “As the result of the Civil War and 13th amendment, those slaves are now Freedmen and they can turn the skills they acquired as slaves working cattle into a paid job as a cowboy. The same thing in Indian Territory. The Five Republics—many of those Indians owned slaves. These newly-freed men could get a job working cattle. They had been working cattle for the Indians. So you have a large labor force that’s comprised of people of color.”

While most depictions of the West are colored by romance, the job of cowboy was far from glamorous.  “His life was miserable,” Dolph said. “It was a hard, hard way to earn a living. It was dangerous. Most of these men—if they lasted more than one drive, they’re broken down physically by the time they’re in their late 20s. So it was a job that people at the lowest economic strata could get.

There is some speculation that the word ‘cowboy’ is actually a pejorative because so many of them were African Americans,” Dolph continued. “How were African American men referred to, even well into the 20th century? ‘Boy.’ It was a way to demean them, to remind them of their place.”

Like “Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo,” which ended its run in the same gallery space on Nov. 25, The Chisholm Kid exhibit enlarges the frame to include a broader and more complete view of the West.

To contextualize The Chisholm Kid’s place in this history, the exhibit includes objects from the museum’s permanent collection. One such work is Frederic Remington’s “The Stampede,” a Western oil painting from 1908. It depicts a cowboy of color, herding a stampede of longhorn during an electrical storm.

“[Remington] was in our area, in Indian Territory, in the 1880s,” Dolph said. “He could have seen this. The artist did not denote who this person was, but I look at it and he’s definitely a cowboy of color. Is he African American? That would be my guess. But he could be Vaquero. He could be Native American. We had all those groups working as cowboys in this area.”

Everybody’s hero

The Chisholm Kid didn’t do much cattle driving in the funny pages. He mostly solved mysteries and moral dilemmas, seeking justice for the downtrodden and dispossessed.

The glass doors welcoming visitors to the Sherman E. Smith Family Gallery, home The Chisholm Kid exhibition, are emblazoned with blown-up renderings of the first strip in the series. In this very first week’s panel, The Chisholm Kid solves the mystery of a murdered newspaper editor in his fictional western town of High Rock. It was all in a day’s work for “the lone fighter for justice for all.”

Back at the Museum of UnCut Funk, Loreen Williamson waxes on The Chisholm Kid’s role in breaking down Western stereotypes, seeing a special value in his potential to reach young people. “For kids to see there actually was a black cowboy way back then—and to see that, yes, he was heroic; and, yes, he did fight the bad guys, and he believed in justice for all—for black people and white people ... I do think that’s important.”

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